Saturday, 9 July 2016

Euro 2016 final is clash of the sub-plots

The final of Euro 2016 will be a clash of the sub-plots - one a personal quest for ultimate glory, the other a seemingly unstoppable tide of public emotion.

France has been through a hell of a lot these past 18 months as terrorist atrocities have plunged the nation into doubt and insecurity. 

Just the fact the finals even went ahead, in the wake of November's horrific attacks, is a victory for human spirit over evil and fear.

You wondered at one stage how on earth the authorities could possibly ensure the safety of the millions of fans, players, tourists arriving for the tournament. 

Now France's story takes them back to the Stade de France on Sunday - where eight months ago the sound of two blasts sent football to the bottom of the priority list and chilled everyone inside to the core.

It is not right to go into the details - too many have lost those close to them to even do them justice.

Winning the European Championships will not make up for anything, it will not heal anything and it will not change anything. 

But it will put a smile back on the faces of a people who need it, and a people who have been so inspirational in the face of adversity that, frankly, they deserve it.

Standing between France and their third major title in 18 years are latter-stage regulars Portugal and one-man hall of fame Cristiano Ronaldo.

The skipper is the very embodiment of the notion of "self". Ronaldo courts the limelight, driven by glory, fuelled by records and guzzling up individual honours like a blue whale on plankton.

Yet there is still a hole in Ronaldo's trophy cabinet for international silverware.

His tears as hosts Portugal lost to Greece in their 2004 final left us thinking, "Well, his time will come." 

But after coming third in 2012 - losing a semi-final to eventual champions Spain - and reaching the semis in the 2006 World Cup - it was starting to look like Ronaldo's time on the international stage would never come.

Especially when his missed penalty against Austria left Portugal staring at a first-round Euro 2016 exit last month, only to eventually sneak through as a best third-place team.

It was plain and simple for all of us to see, Portugal were not good enough.

The steely determination of their usually ice-cool captain looked like it was beginning to give way to personal desperation but vitally they kept plugging away. 

Ronaldo has featured in Portugal's run to the final but has not been key. Unlike the opening games, they are no longer looking for him as their only outlet, with new starlet Renato Sanches coming to the fore.

Still, his desire is there for all to see. In the battle of the Galacticos against Gareth Bale's Wales in the semi-final, he just had to come out on top - he never would have forgiven himself.

And his header, which floored the gallant Dragons just after the break - a majestic leap and bullet connection high into the net - was proof that when Ronaldo wants something enough he can pretty much summon superhuman powers to do it.

After all, you don't score 260 goals for Real Madrid without having a ruthless streak and without being somewhat selfish.

But is Ronaldo's icy exterior beginning to thaw? After the semi-final, he described himself as "humble".

Not many would agree but you do get the feeling that he wants to be liked as well as looked at. 

And if the cold-blooded goal-scoring machine does stop to think about the backdrop against which France have arrived at the final, then it will certainly test his resolve. 

Overcoming the hearts and minds of a nation, even a continent, is surely Ronaldo's biggest challenge yet. 

Although failing might just prove that he is human once and for all.

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